Penang, Malaysia

Community Highlights World Food Penang, Malaysia

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We saw Penang, Malaysia featured on an Anthony Bourdain travel show last year and as a result, it got added into our itinerary. For those of you who may have been wondering where the food pictures were, hold on tight, cause here they come. Penang Island, also known by the nickname ‘Pearl of the Orient’ is located off the coast of Malaysia and in 2014 it was named the number one food destination in the world. This is why.

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We stayed in Georgetown, the capital of Penang Island and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Penang fosters a wonderful mix of cultures, ethnicities, religions and people and this is reflected in the cuisine. Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Burmese and Thai inspired dishes were all well represented. Mosques sat next to temples up the street from churches. Little India laps into Chinatown. The streets are vibrantly colourful and the smell of floral blooms and incense mingle with simmering fragrant broths and grilling meat.

While there are an abundance of restaurants and coffee shops, much of the food is prepared out of hawker stalls or food carts. Many of the hawkers are second and third generation, using unique family recipes. Also, unlike food trucks, there is not usually a menu. Each stall specializes in one thing - sometimes a soup, maybe grilled noodles or a curry. Some are open all day, others are open all night, and many are open only until they run out of food. In Penang, as in much of South East Asia, the practice is to eat 5 or 6 smaller meals throughout the day. The portions are typically smaller than what you would see in a restaurant in North America. This proved helpful, as around every corner there was something new and delicious looking, tempting us to taste.

With a limited amount of time and hundreds of really amazing places to eat, we needed a game plan. We looked at a number of food blogs and found one blogger who had a daytime self-guided walking tour of different hawker stands, another who had a 24 hour food tour of Penang with a different hawker stand or restaurant for each hour of the day. We used these as our guidelines, and awoke early the first day to head out for a food treasure hunt of sorts. We had about a dozen dishes we wanted to try.

In most countries, we try to learn a few words (at a minimum) to help us communicate. Typically, phrases like "Good morning", "please", "thank you", and "how much does this cost" are the priority. In Penang we started with "noodles", "lamb", "pork", "chicken", and "fish". Half the time we still ended up just pointing at what we wanted. It was all fresh and so good!

Dave's favourite dish was Char Koay Teow. It is a stir fried noodle dish where the char from the wok creates a smokey note to the spicy soft noodles. This gentleman's rendition was particularly popular and he had often run out of noodles by 10 a.m.

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My favourite dish was Nasi Kandar, a rice dish with ladles of different curry sauces poured over top. It looks like a hot mess, but it is so delicious. We went to the 24 hour Restaurant Line Clear. It is an institution in Penang. Located in an alley way, with a seating area behind flowing into a parking lot, you order by picking the type of meat or fish you want and then selecting your sauces. The chef was a real character - he had a wall of photos with him and various famous people or long time patrons. When I asked if I could take a picture of the food line, he threw his arm around me, blew his whistle and shouted "line clear" at the top of his voice. The food was scrumptious.

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Along the way, we also saw some sights, including Khoo Khongsi, a Chinese clanhouse,
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a couple of old traders' mansions that were maintained with period furniture and antiques,
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Fort Cornwallis, the original British Fort built to protect their interests on the island,
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and Penang Hill, which had a funicular up to a beautiful view point from where you could look over the city.
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Besides food, the other thing Penang is famous for of late is its street art. Rather than painting over graffiti, it has taken to embracing and as a result, elevating the quality, of the art painted on the streets of Georgetown. In particular, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic’s series of murals stood out.

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We enjoyed our 5 days in Penang, especially the food. I think it was an excellent stepping stone into the South East Asia portion of our adventure. Next stop, Thailand.

This featured blog entry was written by KathleenandDave from the blog Our Great Escape.
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By KathleenandDave

Posted Wed, Mar 12, 2014 | Malaysia | Comments